Maggie Mason
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Entrepreneur, Mighty Girl

  • Place of Origin

    Sacramento, CA

  • Interview Date

    March 20, 2016

I’m a founder, publisher, investor, and advisor. My blog Mighty Girl grew into Mighty Summit and Camp Mighty, a 5-year conference series that raised over $80K for Charity Water. I coined the term Life List, and have checked goals off my list and traveled the world with support from tourism boards and Fortune 500 companies. In 2012, I co-founded Go Mighty, a 6,000-member web platform for Life Lists, and a strategic ad network that connected brands with influencers. In 2004, I launched the first shopping blog, Mighty Goods. It was named one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Cool Sites and was acquired in 2010. I’ve served as a Social Good Fellow for the UN, and as a member of Intel’s Social Media Advisory Board. I’m passionate about societal good, travel, and human potential.

Tell me about your early years and where you come from.

I was born in Sacramento, and I graduated from college at UC Davis with a degree in English. I got my start as the editor at my college paper there. It was a self-supporting newspaper with a 250-person paid staff. That was where I learned to write and edit, how to manage people, how to fire someone. It put myself through school writing five articles a week on top of my course load, it was good practice for the internet.

I grew up thinking I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. But by college people would argue when I told them that. “No, you want to be CEO of something.” Outside perspectives can be helpful when you’re 19.

By graduation I knew I wanted to own my own business, so I started a silk screening shop, and it was the pits. I had trouble motivating to go in and work, so took a part time maid job to force a schedule. I would clean from 7-8 a.m., and then I would go to “the studio,”  which was a rented U-Haul space.

One day when the fire marshal came to the door. I literally had a room-sized drying machine that would routinely set t-shirts on fire. And I mean, like once every maybe 30 minutes something was smoking.

He knocked and said, “We need to do a check of the premises.” I was thinking, “Things are on fire right now. As I am here answering the door, things are catching fire.”  So I said, “Oh! Well, my boss isn’t here. Can you come back another day?” And he was like, “What are you doing in here?” And I said, “Painting t-shirts.” And I made a motion like I was using  a paintbrush. He was like, “Okay. We’re good then.”

And then I went back and put out all the fires that had caught in my absence. I eventually got out and worked as a secretary for a year or so. It was incredible to just go home at 5 p.m. and be done with my day.

How did you get into tech?

One day a friend called from the Bay Area and said, “I get $3K if you’re hired as an editor. You’re interviewing.” They were offering hiring bonuses for referrals because tech needed warm bodies. That’s how I became the assistant editor at the prestigious Windows NT Systems magazine.

What was that like?

Well, I was broke. I was living in a crawlspace in a garage in San Mateo. Literally the door to my closet was a cabinet door seven feet off the ground with no ladder. I would climb up onto a nightstand and heft myself up into the room.

But even if I’d had money, there were no apartments. No one in San Francisco would rent to you if you were in tech because there was such a backlash against tech workers coming to the city.  I was in this weird place where I was like, I have an English degree and I am making $20,000 a year. I can’t afford to live without roommates, and literally no one will even talk to me because I’m technically working in tech right now.

Yes. It was bad. That magazine eventually closed, so I applied for a new job as an associate managing editor for a magazine called Web Techniques, it was for C-level web execs. I worked my way up from there to senior editor and then managing editor by the time I was 25. The editor in chief was 26, which was unheard of at the time.

I still wasn’t making enough money to live in San Francisco, so at night we would go through our PR invites and hit all the launch parties that advertised free food and drinks.  And then sometimes you couldn’t get a cab back. We had all this inflatable furniture in the office left over from the conferences our company threw, so we would go back and sleep on the inflatable furniture in empty cubes.

I remember at one of those parties there was a girl in head-to-toe Prada, and I said to my editor, “That girl’s outfit cost more than her parents’ car. What is happening right now? There’s no way this can last.”

And it didn’t.

No, it did not. Web Techniques eventually closed in the bust. And over the years, the tech crowd shifted.

How so?

At the start, tech attracted true nerds, people who had been picked last at kickball and knew what it was like to be marginalized. There was just a wealth of sensitive, really bright, motivated, charming young men who maybe were a little awkward with women, but who were respectful of the community.

When I was a journalist, South by Southwest Interactive was only a few hundred people. You knew everyone there. You definitely knew who all the women were, because there were so few of us. At that time, by virtue of you being there, there was more of an assumption of your right to be there, because there were so few people in the space. If you were there, you were part of it, it was meaningful. There was sexism, of course, but it wasn’t as widespread and overt.

Since San Francisco became an industry town focused on tech, there’s been a shift away from people being more creatively oriented. There are fewer futurists and more people focused on money.

When the social web came into play, things started to turn. You’ll approach a group of men, a few of them are friends, but maybe one or two of them don’t know you. When you approach, often the new guys make the assumption that you’re not a meaningful presence. And so, they do all of the things that people do when they discount you. They turn their body away from you. They turn you out of the circle. They don’t make eye contact in a prolonged conversation.

And now, and this is gross, I sometimes find myself doing it. When I see a woman around a lot, I occasionally will assume that she’s someone’s wife, as opposed to assuming that she’s a tech person. You just don’t see a lot of female faces.

How did you get into blogging?

Working at the magazines, I met a lot of the people who formed what we think of as the social web today. I already had a personal site when I was editing a sidebar in the magazine about Blogger. So I turned my site into a blog.

Many, many years later it became possible to making a living with your blog, but the landscape was nothing like it is today. There were very few subject-specific blogs, maybe a handful focused on tech. And then Movable Type came on the scene and gave some more powerful content management tools. I realized that you could use that to make a magazine-style blog, and that no one was looking at more traditionally female topics.

I launched a site called Mighty Goods, it was the first shopping blog. It was, I think, the first content-specific blog aimed at a a female audience. It was among the first handful of blogs that focused on a specific topic. It was listed as one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 sites, so I launched a couple of sister sites — Mighty Junior and Mighty House — and all of those were eventually acquired.

Mighty Girl was starting to make money, but I didn’t have children, so the ad agency didn’t really know the best way to sell me at first. There weren’t a lot of lifestyle brands buying online campaigns. I was getting pitched a lot of Pampers.

Also, audiences had turned to blogs to get away from the mainstream messages and commercialization. People cussed on their sites, or spoke candidly about controversial things. So to sanitize yourself to get advertising was anathema to the entire exercise.

So what did you do?

Because of my background with editorial I thought, “Okay. What are advertisers looking for? They’re looking for a narrative. Right? What narrative could I provide that would let them give me money to write about whatever I want?”

So, I wrote up what I call a Life List, the less-morbid version of a bucket list. And that’s what I became known for. I spent a year and a half making decks and pitching, and there was some eye rolling from some of the salespeople I was working with. But eventually Intel picked me up as part of their Sponsors of Tomorrow campaign.

They sent me to swim with bioluminescent plankton in Puerto Rico, I was zip-lining, I was learning to roll in a kayak. It was all this super adrenal stuff, which if you know any writers, we’re people who like to sit in warm bathtubs with a cup of tea.

And in the time between coming up with the Life List idea and getting to execute it with sponsorship, I’d had a baby, which changed things.

How so?

Well, before the Life List,  Mighty Girl was slowly making money, Mighty Goods was doing really well. I got a book deal to write No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 101 Ideas for Your Blog. And I was writing a regular sidebar for the New York Times that featured unusual items for sale on eBay.

Then one night my husband and I were going to dinner at a friend’s house, and he said, “We need to do some math. If we want two kids before you’re 36, we should have started trying by now.” I just went pale.

I was thinking, “Oh my god. My career. I just won all of these awards, I have my book deal, my site is taking off,” I was at that dinner like, “Holy crap. It is time to get pregnant. It’s today.”

So I did. But being an entrepreneur and trying to be a primary parent blows. Babyhood is a very fleeting window. You want to be with your kids as much as they want to be with you, but work is always waiting.

I was raised in the have-it-all generation. Now there’s that adage, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.” Well, actually you can, it’s just overwhelming and kind of crappy.

I always thought that I would re-enter the conventional workforce, but tech is so dominated by people in their 20s. There’s also a culture of hustling to make sure your value is noted by coworkers. And it’s difficult for them perceive that value if they haven’t felt the push-and-pull of a family life. I was like, “Man, I don’t want to be the person at the company who is doing less than the people around me, or even perceived to be doing less.”

I always want to be the person doing the most, hustling hardest. And that amount of effort requires an unconventional schedule with kids in the mix.

So you grew your own thing.

Yes, I took on some partners and launched an events series that ran for five years. We had invite-only gatherings called Mighty Summits, and a more conventional conference called Camp Mighty. Eventually we founded Go Mighty, which is the community version of the Life List.

And the premise of it from a business standpoint was that it was sort of like an ad network with a soul. We would bring in companies to sponsor influencer’s goals, and then often it would include a societal good component.

Overall, what do you still feel are the most important things to you in your work?

There is, obviously, the need to make a living so that you can eat and your children can eat. Beyond that, I’m motivated by people’s potential. Connecting people with each other or with ideas, sparks a chain that creates good stuff in the world. I like to be a part of that.

I see technology as the most creative force available outside of the art world. The side of tech that still has my heart are the creative people who make things and build things, people who are globally curious. And getting to talk to those people and create things with them is awesome.

I have monetary goals around health, education, and social justice. I’d like to raise $100K for each cause. Event attendees raised $80K for Charity Water, so we’re only $20K away from the health goal. Also, one of the goals with Go Mighty was to redirect $1 million in corporate advertising funds toward campaigns with social impact. So those things are still important to me.

I’m interested in how advertising can become information, and also how we can tweak ad budgets to serve multiple purposes. I’m also thinking a lot about how we could automate systems to make it less work for people to donate money. We’re looking at such a huge income disparity, it’s time to start putting more of our best minds to solving that.

Where do you think you got your hustle from?

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My mom used to say, “If you liked it, no one would pay you to do it.” So it cracks me up that I’ve literally been paid to check things off of my Life List.

My father passed away when I was eight. My mother was very ill. She didn’t have traditional jobs open to her, because she couldn’t work nine-to-five reliably. So she had an antique stall, or when I was tiny, she had a newspaper route. She delivered 2,000 papers a day, and sometimes she would wake me up to go get warm donuts. Then she’d put me in the bed of the pick-up truck, and cover me with papers. I would sit in the back of the truck and throw newspapers out. That’s one of my nicest memories.

Watching her make it work with the energy and resources she had was very motivational. She said, “If anybody’s ever paying you, they better see you working at all times. Don’t sit still. That’s how you lose a job.”

Idea generation comes easily to me, so I value people who say, “Okay, let’s do it.”  I can sit in a room come up with 400 cool ideas, but at some point you need to get your bum in gear. And the bigger the plan, the more help you need.

Within the lens of everything that you’ve talked about, how do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? Like, you’ve seen a couple  cycles, you probably see things repeat themselves in certain ways, and be different?

I’m curious to see whether there will be more of a verbal tradition, whether histories will start to be passed down and collected more, the way you’re doing here. It’s weird that tech doesn’t tend to respect experience, though it might be a byproduct of a time when older people hadn’t grown up with technology so didn’t know much about it.

When you’re trying to innovate quickly, and fail quickly, experience is invaluable. Is that company a unicorn, or a horse with a horn glued to his forehead? Experience saves time and resources.

The lessons that we’ve learned with other people’s money, with how we treat our communities, or people’s personal information, they’re often lost in these new endeavors. Everyone is too young to remember when the wheel was invented the first time.

Aside from that, I’m surprised that the industry is still so homogenous. When you have the relatively homogenous group of people building the future, the future is more of the same.  And I think we’ve collectively decided that’s not our jam, the future being more of the same.

That said, people are using the technologies provided by that legacy to make new things happen, and to connect with each other and shift things, so maybe it will work for users to meet creators halfway.

What life goals you’re working on at the moment, either for work or personally?

I had a difficult pregnancy, so I took a sabbatical to have this baby. It’s the first time in my life I haven’t been working. It’s strange, but it has been nice to have space to enjoy his babyhood.

I’d like to do more interviews, and maybe a speaker series. For the first time in a long time working at a company again sounds appealing. The learning curve is there, and it would be cool to work with people who know more than me.

My last question for you would be based on lessons that you’ve learned over time. What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds, maybe just chicks hoping to get into tech, based on what you’ve learned over time?
There is power in being different. It makes you memorable and intriguing. People who don’t automatically recognize that probably aren’t people who you would have successful working relationships with anyway. I think it is much more to your advantage to be a woman in this field than it is to your disadvantage, if you can keep your morale up, and if you can learn to dismiss the people who dismiss you. You’ll have all the success you need just working with the people who see you.